Canberra, Dec. 3 (Reuters): Australian Prime Minister John Howard said today he was not spoiling for a fight when he pledged to take pre-emptive action in another country against terrorism, and denied his comments had hurt relations with Asia.
Howard stood by his remark on Sunday that he would be willing to take pre-emptive action if he believed militants in another country planned to attack, despite criticism from Asian neighbours that such a strike would be an act of war.
“I made those remarks very carefully, in a very low-key fashion, they were quite accurate, they were not directed at any of our friends... I don’t resile from them in any way,” Howard told a news conference.
Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand have all lashed out at the comments, with the Philippines saying they were bizarre and arrogant and Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad saying he would view such a strike as an act of war.
Malaysia’s New Straits Times ran a commentary today dubbing the Australian leader “Uncle Sam’s foremost flunky”.
But Howard denied the comments had caused offence.
“I don’t believe that our relations have been damaged by those statements at all, I think they are known and understood for what they are, and that is a statement of the obvious,” Howard said.
“They don’t mean any bellicosity towards our friends.”
Overnight the Australian leader won support from the White House in Washington, where President George W. Bush's administration unilaterally adopted a pre-emptive strike doctrine in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks.
“The President of course supports pre-emptive action,” White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters.
“September 11 changed everything, and nations must respond and change their doctrines to face new and different threats,” he said, quoting Bush’s view.
Analysts and some Asian leaders have recognised that Howard leads a nation where nerves are raw and emotions running high after the October Bali bombing that killed more than 180 people, about half of them Australians.
But reactions to the comments even in Australia have been broadly negative, with some warning that more tension in the region was the last thing Australia needed.
“Prime Minister John Howard would do well to catch up with the reality that Australia’s security is intimately linked to having good relations with our Asian neighbours,” Klaas Woldring wrote to the editor of Sydney’s Daily Telegraph.
The Australian national newspaper said in an editorial that, while the Prime Minister “was broadly correct” in acknowledging the need sometimes to take pre-emptive military action, he was “ill-advised in today's ticklish security environment to say it”.
But others praised the Prime Minister for his stance.
“Howard’s comments... shows that at least one world leader has shown some diligence and insight into the terrorist problem.
“We must be proactive if we are to win this new kind of war. And our neighbours need to wake up,” an Owen Edwards said in a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald.